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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Game Review - Call of Duty: World at War

Significant improvement over Modern Warfare, but still lots of room for further improvement.

____________________________________________________________

TOTAL SCORE: 8.5/10

The Good:
Slick interface and menu * Consistent gameplay intensity * Stunning mission diversity * Very immersive aural experience * Perfect controls * Improved A.I. * More challenging * Slightly better visuals * Multiplayer now includes online play

The Bad:
Some events have already been played out in Call of Duty 2 * A.I. can still be greatly improved * Visuals are still relatively weak

- Suggestions for improvement listed at Final Comments
____________________________________________________________

Portable gamers were given a little surprise late last year when Activision decided to let loose its Call of Duty franchise on the DS for the first time. N-Space undertook the project and the result was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a game that was in equal parts impressive and disappointing. It was impressive because what portable gamers were getting was essentially a shrinked-down console version of Call of Duty 4 – which means the DS version retains the consistent intensity of the gameplay, incredible mission diversity and immersive aural experience. On the other hand, there were a handful of control issues that detract quite a bit from the overall experience and the graphics, while acceptable, weren’t anywhere near the quality of other comparable DS titles. The unexpectedly poor A.I. also took a considerable amount of fun from the game.

With the 2nd DS Call of Duty offering, World at War, n-Space took what Modern Warfare for DS did right and improved on those positive components. At the same time, some of the issues that were present in the aforementioned got fixed. Additionally, n-Space pumped in a whole lot more content. The result is a way better Call of Duty game for DS – a very polished FPS that while not as good as Nintendo’s own Metroid Prime: Hunters, is still a must-get for your DS games library.

Unlike Modern Warfare, World at War transports gamers back to the World War 2 era, with the DS version following the story of its console siblings loosely. While this means that both editions won’t share all the events, a large part of what is offered on the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii can still be experienced here. The spectacular cut-scenes are understandably removed from the DS version, but the rather slick interface and menu that makes last year’s Modern Warfare for DS look more like a school project which n-Space has implemented more than compensates for the lack of the said. My only gripe is the decision to bring the franchise back to its World War 2 roots, especially since the previous game in the series has moved on. Instead, I found myself experiencing the SAME events from Call of Duty 2, though World at War has added jungle combat and naval warfare into the mix, so at least there’s still something precluding that ‘Why am I playing the same game?’ feeling from returning. But all in all, this is still World War 2 all over again and I hope that subsequent Call of Duty games would just move on.

But what has been done is done, so let’s make the best of the World War 2 setting. As mentioned, World at War, like Modern Warfare, has a VERY stunning amount of mission diversity going for it. The said is a Call of Duty franchise trademark and that is reflected very clearly here. Aside from the standard on-ground urban assaults, there are some really interesting scripted events. In one mission, you would be piloting a bomber attempting bomb drops on specific targets while fending off air attacks by constantly switching between manning the bombs and the machine guns – something that is consistently intense. In another, you would be taking control of an anti-air gun on a boat, all the while trying to put the darting Japanese Zeros out of commission. As per the de rigueur of Call of Duty games, the on-tank, on-halftrack, mortar strike, and call-in-artillery-strike-using-binoculars missions are all present, and so are the sniper levels. Again, like in Modern Warfare, all these are rounded off by a handful of enjoyable DS-exclusive mini-games that provide a breather from all the intensive running and gunning. However, I was disappointed to discover that the much-hyped flamethrower mission from the console editions was inexplicitly left out of the DS edition and there seems to be very few weapons offered here (where is the shotgun?).

Aside from the consistent gameplay intensity and distinctively diverse offering of missions, the engrossing audio experience from Modern Warfare was also retained. But World at War goes one up over its predecessor by filling out almost the entire game with memorable military tunes and offering more VO than you will ever find in another DS title. The former, especially, reflects the intensity of the gameplay really well and is complemented by equally, if not more, impressive, sound effects (I personally like the constant cracks of gunfire in the background and howling of wind in the later missions). This IS the game where you NEED to plug in your earphones, turn up the volume and allow the game to transport you into its world.

One of the components from Modern Warfare that had some issues was the controls. If you recall from the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for DS review that I wrote last year, bringing up iron sights required double tap on the touch-screen and this created a couple of issues as the game often misinterpreted the command as a quick turn. World at War addresses this issue by having a bar dedicated to the command of bringing up iron sights at the top of the screen, so to execute the aforementioned now, all you need to do is to tap anywhere near the top of the touch-screen, making precision-aiming gunplay more convenient and intuitive. Another issue that I had with the controls in Modern Warfare was the crouch command, which required a double tap on the down button on the d-pad, but that particular button input was also dedicated to moving backwards so there’s a propensity for the game to misinterpret a crouch command as a backwards move command. This set of controls remain unchanged in World at War, but the game interprets the controls more precisely now. The tight and responsive mouse-like touch-screen controls for aiming from Modern Warfare get translated perfectly in World at War as well – so what you are getting in World at War is DS FPS controls at its zenith.

Another problem that was had in Modern Warfare was the terrible A.I. While the A.I. is still far from consummate in this year’s offering, it has been significantly improved from last year’s, so there’s a lot to look forward to. Part of the reason why the A.I. in Modern Warfare was so bad was because enemies often spawned in illogically to their pre-programmed positions and ceased to move the moment they arrived at their said locations. What this translated into were enemies who did not take cover when you shoot at them and who did not dodge when grenades were hurled their way. It really took away a lot from the experience as the entire game felt more like a budget online-based pop-up and shoot game or rather, a cleverly disguised war-themed Point Blank or Whac-A-Mole. Fortunately, the A.I. has been tweaked and the result is a more adaptable A.I. which does take cover from time to time and which does hurl grenades back at you if you do pop a grenade in their way (though the A.I. still stays suspiciously riveted to their spots if a grenade is about to explode). Enemy A.I. also dodges around quite a bit now – this is a great improvement over Modern Warfare, in which the enemy A.I. does not move away from its pre-programmed positions at all.

Added to the overall challenge of World at War is the increase in the number of on-screen enemies. More noteworthy, however, is the developer’s ability to make the DS produce such huge amounts of on-screen action at any given point of time with barely a noticeable drop in framerate. The only ‘downside’ to the increase in World at War’s capacity to output so many on-screen enemies at once and at a rate that is so quick is an unbalanced difficulty level. At certain points, the game can be a breeze, but during some sections, the action can grow relatively brutal and unforgiving. Depending on your preference, this can either be positive or negative. I personally dig the easy-hard approach as it injects more variety into the game, forcing you to implement more stop-and-pop strategy into gunplay.

Another thing that was found going against Modern Warfare last year was the visuals. Given the DS’s limited technical power, it isn’t exactly ideal for such action-intensive games nor is it capable of outputting graphics that would match those seen on the console versions of Modern Warfare, but the tons of huge pixellated junk and muddled textures were stamped all over the game that any hope of ignorance was all but extinguished. World at War, unfortunately, shares the same visual engine with Modern Warfare, so there’s still quite a handful of muddled textures lying around the environments, but a slight improvement was noticed as the game progresses into more urban environments. Call of Duty on DS is still a considerably ‘ugly’ game, especially given the very smooth graphics accomplished on Metroid: Prime Hunters and the sharp visuals churned out by Dementium: The Ward, but generally, World at War ends up better than Modern Warfare in the graphics department (though it’s only a tad better) – all in all, it’s still visually passable, but that isn’t a compliment by any means. If there’s one thing that I would like to see further improved in next year’s offering, it would be the visuals. On a sidenote, I noticed that the graphics remain a little on the ‘dark’ side. I would suggest playing World at War on the DS Lite or DSi (if you are quick enough to get your hands on an import) over the original DS; the capability to adjust the brightness level of the screen does help.

On the multiplayer side of things, the game has been beefed up drastically. The list of modes from Modern Warfare, namely deathmatch, team deathmatch, hunter/prey and capture the flag, remains unaltered, but these game modes can now be taken online for play in addition to local wireless play. While the DS edition lacks the depth of the multiplayer of the console versions, the fact that Call of Duty multiplayer can only get better from here is comforting. Online play is a fantastic addition, and so is the statistics tracking. An achievement-like medal system and collectible stars that unlock bonus items scattered throughout each level also increases the replayability of the game – this, in addition to the 8 hours plus of action offered by the single-player campaigns.

Final Comments
There is no denying that the Call of Duty franchise has matured greatly on the DS, and the 2nd DS Call of Duty, World at War, is an amazing title. There’s the same consistent gameplay intensity, diverse mission offerings and immersive aural experience. At the same time, the somewhat problematic controls from Modern Warfare have been perfected and the A.I. has been significantly improved, though there’s still room for MORE polish for the A.I. The game is generally more challenging, but for this step forward, the game takes a step backwards with its visuals, which is still poor by today’s standards (the DS can achieve more than what is shown here – as demonstrated by Metroid Prime: Hunters and Dementium: The Ward). Multiplayer content has been shored up and replayability, added in the form of collectibles. Despite some of its palpable flaws, World at War on DS remains a competent offering that can stand on its own feet and if you have played World at War on the consoles, the DS version is a nice game to have on the go to complement the console action.

Moving forward, I would like to see next year’s DS Call of Duty offering to have a better A.I. (especially) and improved visuals. It is also possible for the multiplayer to include more modes and online chat, yet at the same time, support for more online players in any one match (only 4 per match now).

I would also like to experience a more emotionally appealing Call of Duty and that can be achieved via the use of character focus and sprawling cut-scenes. While I mentioned that it’s understandable for this game to exclude cut-scenes given the DS’s limited cartridge space, there’s no reason not to do it since Tomb Raider Underworld for DS has already accomplished those 2 aspects that I pointed out (character focus and sprawling cut-scenes).

When all these are put in place, we would then have the perfect Call of Duty for DS. I shall have my fingers-crossed, but meanwhile, do enjoy this game.

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